Women in Finance Roundtable
With Florence Fong, Managing Director: Private Banking, Malaysia Market
and Chair of Singapore Women’s Network, Credit Suisse;
Diana Senanayake, Head of Southeast Asia, BNP Paribas Securities Services; and
Chloe Thomas, Head of Operations, Asia Pacific, J.P. Morgan Asset Management
How have opportunities (and challenges) for women in finance evolved, broadly speaking?
FLORENCE FONG: Let’s start with the positives. Things are certainly looking brighter for women in finance. The commitment made by many financial institutions to increase the number of women in senior leadership roles, along with the elevation and understanding of the benefits of diversity and inclusion to drive better business outcomes show that this is a vital strategic topic in many boardrooms today. With this in mind, the responsibility of senior leaders to challenge and interrupt unconscious bias will help cultivate better diversity and inclusion, which in turn would be the differentiator that attracts and retains talent.
The pandemic has posed an interesting challenge and brought upon significant changes. For many of us, this provided a much-needed flexi-working arrangement, whilst proving we are able to deliver quality performance regardless of the situation. This is a game-changer for many women, myself included, in the finance industry. It allows us to have more quality time – both at home and at work – and less mum’s guilt.
However, the issue remains in that we still have a lot of work to do. While we are on the right track, the pace has been immensely slow and the trajectory to having more senior women leaders cannot and should not slow down. Gender lens and behaviors need to change for many more in the industry for this to be an industry-driven effort and not one that relies on an individual’s or a small group of financial institutions’ effort.
DIANA SENANAYAKE: The correlation between diversity within executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time, where we now see that companies with more than 30 percent of female executives have a higher chance of outperforming companies where the percentage ranges between 10 and 30.
CHLOE THOMAS: In 1998, when I began my first role in finance, there were really no female senior managers for me to reach out to or look up to. While this has changed, women are still significantly underrepresented in finance and asset management, particularly in investment roles. Nowadays, the majority of meetings and interactions I have, both internally and externally, include many women. Gender parity has improved meaningfully and companies recognize this as a strategic priority, but I feel there is still a lot of work to be done particularly when moving into more senior roles.
Speaking from my own experience, I believe the broader team I work with recognise the importance of diversity, and all my colleagues are respected, trusted and given equal opportunity to contribute and raise their ideas and voices. That said, there is room for improvement in how our industry develops and retains existing female talent and attracts more women. A more inclusive financial services industry is good for business and for our clients.
What are the specific challenges/opportunities for women in finance in Asia, vis-a-vis the U.S. and/or Europe?
CHLOE: We have the benefit of domestic help in Hong Kong and other parts of the region, mainly from women who leave their own families to earn a living and provide better opportunities for them. In doing so they have helped change the landscape for women in Asia, as we are able to return to work with affordable childcare.
The flip side of this is the possibility of being judged for not putting in the same ‘face time’ at work. There is an undertone that, if someone is looking after your children, why would you want to do the school run etc. I believe this experience is similar for both women and men.
I think affordable childcare benefits women by having one less external pressure to hold them back from taking promotions and pushing forward with career aspirations.
DIANA: A recent S&P Global report highlighted a growing number of women on boards of listed companies and whilst Europe is leading in this arena, Asia-Pacific is pulling its weight, but can still do much more. Although we see an increase of women on boards in most countries across the region, achieving optimum gender diversity in the corporate world can be more challenging, especially in countries where we need to factor in socio-economic conditions.
How is your organization providing more opportunities for women in finance?
DIANA: In order to achieve gender parity, companies need to clearly define and track gender KPIs across all levels of their organization. Having met the targets we set in 2020, one-third of both BNP Paribas’ Group Executive committee and the Group’s Top 100 Managers are women and the plan is to increase both of these ratios to 40% by 2025. By accelerating the pipeline of female talent through our APAC Talent Programmes and Leaders for Tomorrow initiatives, we have already met our gender parity targets amongst BNP Paribas “Emerging Talents” and at entry level 45% of our graduate intake are women. This has received market recognition with Asiamoney ranking BNP Paribas second amongst global banks for female graduate hires, and third in terms of the percentage of women in Senior Management, as well as the overall number of women in the workplace.
FLORENCE: Since I joined the bank almost seven years ago, we have evolved to ensure that diversity and inclusion is viewed as a strategic topic and widely embraced by our senior leaders. We have also created a platform for women to come together to have fellowship across the various divisions, and a well-grounded sounding board with both male and female senior leaders in the bank, who communicate efficiently either through formal mentor-mentee relationships or simply via informal connections. We provide such opportunities through the various employee networks in the bank.
I chair the Singapore Women’s Network (SWN) in the bank. SWN has close to 1,000 members and is passionately run by 50 amazing committee members who organize various events and collaborate with both internal and external networks on a vast variety of topics relating to women. In 2018, we created SWN Advocates, comprising senior male leaders who help drive and champion inclusion for women alongside us to ensure women get a fair opportunity in the workplace.
CHLOE: Firm-wide we have launched an accountability framework to strengthen the way we incorporate diversity and inclusion priorities and progress into year-end performance evaluations and compensation decisions for senior leaders. Our leaders are accountable for diversity goals across all levels of the organization, as well as leading with inclusive behaviours.
The goals will be achieved through hiring, promotion and most importantly making our firm one at which employees will want to stay. Our initiatives include Emerging Leaders, a partnership with the Laboratory School of Finance & Technology in the South Bronx, to mentor and develop students; a Diversity Resource Guide for recruiters to use with hiring managers; “Get to Know Talent” pairings that have JPM AM operating committee members meet one-on-one with diverse talent; and diversity roundtables across all levels of the company to better understand views on D&I within the firm.
Can you highlight a specific program or initiative, at your firm or elsewhere in the industry, that has been especially helpful in advancing women in finance?
FLORENCE: Globally, our business leaders are committed to increasing female representation in senior management positions, and we plan to achieve this through recruitment, promotion, development, and retention actions. This includes various programs across the region, which are both business- and employee-led. We have a strong internal mobility program in which we see higher rates of female movers across the region. We ensure that our employees have access to internal opportunities that support the building of broader skill sets, and opportunities to follow their passion and build relationships with sponsors and networks across the organization which helps them to gain access to projects and build a track record that leads them on a path for promotion.
In Singapore, it was at the Financial Women’s Association (FWA) where I learnt about fellowship and mentorship among women in the finance industry. They have since moved towards getting both male and female champions to help create a strong network that pays it forward via mentorship programs and related events for many of its members.
At Credit Suisse, we emulate the same spirit and have since engaged many of our senior leaders to be advocates of gender diversity. Our leaders are also actively mentoring many of our staff and this has benefitted both mentors and mentees professionally and personally, and has encouraged them to pay it forward.
CHLOE: Our success depends on having the most talented employee base; diversity and inclusion is critical to our talent strategy and a core part of our culture and principles. As a firm, we’ve significantly increased engagement and accelerated the work to strengthen our culture and processes. Steps include:
-Accountability for incorporating diversity and inclusion in the year-end review process for all employees;
-Increased focus on hiring, using a diverse panel of interviewers, and retaining diverse talent; and
-Measuring our progress with data.
Specifically in relation to gender diversity, we are dedicated to improving gender equality for women and girls. Our global firm-wide initiative, Women on the Move (WOTM), is designed to help women both inside and outside of the firm. The program has three core objectives:
-Expand women-run businesses;
-Improve women’s financial health; and
-Empower women’s career growth.
The program leads from the top, providing opportunities for all women at different levels, with both soft skills and tools for career enhancement.
DIANA: The BNP Paribas Returnship Programme in Hong Kong and Singapore targets experienced individuals who are looking to re-integrate back into the workforce after a career break. The programme is now in its third year.
If you could make one change — whether in policy, mindset, or anything else — what one change would be most helpful toward promoting women in finance?
CHLOE: One of J.P. Morgan’s internal initiatives which I think is a fantastic but simple way that all employees can help is the 30-5-1 initiative. Launched by Women on the Move, it encourages employees to set aside 30 minutes a week to have a coffee with an up-and-coming female colleague; five minutes to congratulate a female colleague on a recent success; and one minute to share that colleague’s success with co-workers.
I remember when I was in the UK, the concept of shared parental leave was increasingly being adopted. I really liked how this helped to drive a common mindset, that family responsibilities can be shared equally. Such policies can also help to open up space in society to enable partners to shift gears, including providing women with the optionality to make the right choices for them and their loved ones. I personally think that progress towards widespread adoption of shared parental leave is a step in the right direction and helps to curb unconscious bias towards hiring women, even as there is still much to be done on this front.
DIANA: Mindset is key, especially in terms of hiring and retaining gender diverse talent at every stage of their careers. This can require a clear set of manager guidelines to ensure the hiring process is unbiased from the outset and once on-board, women are provided with the sponsorship and support they need to successfully advance in their careers.
FLORENCE: Many financial institutions are making the commitment to increase the number of women in senior leadership roles.
The next step is the call for action and we need to see changes from the top. If we can persuade every manager to be accountable in ensuring their succession planning includes at least one woman in the preparation to take over his or her role (whether in the near or medium term), we will be able to elevate more women to the top. This will allow both men and women to have equal opportunities for promotions.